I have a hard time thinking of myself as a perfectionist.
I mean, when I think “perfectionist”, I think of characters like Monica in Friends or Annie in Community: intensely organised people who like things just so and always have to be the best. Not people like me, who view changing out of pajamas as a workday chore rather than an everyday essential and leave a trail of clean-but-abandoned laundry in their wake (like, hello, I just washed and dried it, I’m gonna hang it up as well? I think not).
I guess I’ve always thought being a perfectionist was basically a good thing. Like, a flaw, but the kind of flaw you wheel out in answer to the interview question “what’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I guess I’m a perfectionist, I just care too much about getting everything right and being awesome, haha”. Essentially, you’d think someone who was striving for perfection all the time – “perfectionist”, it’s in the name – would get a lot closer to it than I do.
And I’m still open to the possibility that there is a good kind of perfectionism. I mean, it’s good to want the things you do to be done well. But there is also a very bad kind of perfectionism, and I’m steeped in it.
For me, there are two potential outcomes to the things I do: perfection, or failure. And instead of meaning that I’m always reaching for the moon and landing among the stars, or whatever that astronomically-implausible saying is, it often means that I just don’t try at all.
I’m not saying I feel this way about everything – there are plenty of things I’m fully capable of just phoning in. Like laundry, for example. But it applies to a lot of things I care about. Even my habitat: never in my life have I just spent five minutes picking up a few misplaced items and putting them away. Either I ignore the mess, or I throw myself into a large-scale, frenzied tidy-up, the sort where I start by emptying every box, shelf and drawer onto the floor because I am planning the declutter to end all declutters, the declutter that clutter prophecy foretold and that clutter will be telling its grandclutters about for generations to come. I’m gonna get rid of so much clutter it will create anticlutter. Only, of course, I get tired after a few hours and end up leaving a bigger mess than I started with.
So I try not to try. If I don’t try, I can’t fail – and if I do try, I definitely will fail, because perfection is unattainable. This sounds more dramatic than I really want it to but: I don’t see myself as having had any successes. Everything that should count as an achievement – good grades at school, graduating university – just seems like a failure to me. Good failures, failures that brought me a bit closer to not-failing than usual, but still failures.
This isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. The fact that I’m not proud of my university degree does not have much of an impact on my day-to-day life. But the reluctance to try because of the perceived inevitability of failure? That’s a real pain.
And, of course, it’s especially bad with writing, because I care so much about it. I want to succeed at writing SO MUCH, even though I still don’t even know what that means. But that makes the failures so much worse, and the trying so much harder.
I finally finished the latest draft of my manuscript today and sent it to my editor. It was ridiculously hard. I mean, I knew exactly what I had to do. And I knew how to do it. But it felt like I was fighting… I don’t know, myself, I guess, all the way. Even though I’ve been working towards this for literally years, a part of me really, really didn’t want to finish, and tried everything to stop me. I kept getting distracted, confused and overwhelmed by anxiety or misery about what utter crap the entire manuscript is. And yeah, okay, that’s actually business as usual for me, but until I got here I would have bet money that that would get better with the finish line in sight, not worse. And it was so much worse.
And, of course, now it’s over, I don’t feel like celebrating. Because, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I’m certain that I could have done better. I should have done better.
As part of my continuing efforts not to always be a human Eeyore, though, let’s look at this another way. They say – and by “they” I obviously mean Wikipedia – that “perfect is the enemy of good”. Well, in the battle for my brain, calling this project finished was a defeat for perfection. Which I guess means that, in a small way, good won.